03.16.2015 0

Just hang the flag, Chief Judge Morrison

portsmouth flag

By Robert Romano

It began innocently enough.

Portsmouth Sheriff Bill Watson received an American flag made from a fire hose as a gift from the Portsmouth Fire Department. The flag included a blue line in the middle in support of law enforcement and emergency personnel. Watson, whose office is on the first floor of the Portsmouth Judicial Building wanted to display the flag in the lobby of the building. The lobby is bare except for a photograph of members of the city bar association.

So, Watson asked the head of building maintenance if he could hang the flag, who had to clear this with Johnny Morrison, Chief Justice of the 3rd Circuit Court. City general services say that what may be hung in the judicial building falls under the purview of the Chief Justice.

While waiting for the answer, Watson simply hung the flag in the lobby. Then, it was removed by a court order, with the Chief Justice refusing to keep the flag in the lobby because he defined it as a work of art. He also has later argued that hanging the flag would show favoritism to the police force. The other three circuit judges also opposed the flag being hung.

Recounting the events to NewsChannel 3, Watson said he was told, “Not only do we not want it on the wall, we don’t want it in the courthouse.”

“I just can’t believe that they don’t want to display the American flag in a courthouse, I mean that’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” Watson added.

The flag is currently hanging in the glass of Watson’s office facing the lobby.

Watson faced a similar situation in December of 2014 when they demanded he remove a nativity scene and Jewish decorations he placed in the lobby. He removed the display and decorations when the judges raised the issue with him.

Watson has a program which places non-violent offenders in a housing facility; instead of prison, and gives them duties like snow removal and chopping firewood for the elderly. Some of the inmates of the housing facility are also responsible for city facility cleaning and basic maintenance.

So what was such a big deal about hanging the flag? It’s just a flag, after all. There is no significant legal issue, First Amendment or otherwise, that comes to mind. Hanging artwork, photographs, standards, and other memorabilia in government office buildings is common practice.

So what if it was made out of hoses and was painted? So what if it could be considered a work of art? By such a standard, a Jasper Johns American flag painting or Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 oil on canvas, Washington Crossing the Delaware, would not be hung.

Why, because they were painted?

Or maybe, something else. Perhaps, the Chief Justice does not like the Portsmouth fire hose flag simply because it shows a love of country and an appreciation for law enforcement.

Which part of that did he object to, precisely?

“The court ordered the removal of an exhibit, a piece of artwork, a display that was in our public area in support of our first responders,” Morrison told NewsChannel 3. The court objected to a sign adjoining the flag that stated, “A tribute to public safety,” which Morrision, a former City Democrat Party leader, says members felt could be perceived as in favor of law enforcement when the courthouse is supposed to be neutral.

Of course, it has nothing to do with showing favoritism for the police, it’s about saying thank you to those who put their lives on the line every day to protect and defend the local Portsmouth community. There is no ideological or legal issue at stake, and yet the Chief Justice has seen fit to create one.

When you get down to it, the court’s refusal to display the flag and showing support for police and emergency personnel is just mean-spirited. They all work in the same building, for goodness’ sake.

As Watson noted, “They expect my deputies to put their life on the line for a judge. If somebody was going to come into a courtroom with a gun, the deputy is supposed to stand in front of the judge and take a bullet, but yet they won’t let us have our flag, saluting public safety? To me, that’s a slap in the face.”

Is saying thank you so hard? Perhaps the Chief Justice is simply ungrateful for such protection. Fair enough.

Circuit court judges are nominated by the general assembly. Courts of Justice Committee in both the Senate and House of Delegates will accept nominations from members of the Virginia General Assembly then make a determination on if the nominee is qualified to hold the office. A public hearing is then held by the committee where supporters and dissenters may comment. A vote is then held by each chamber individually; with the totals combined and the highest vote recipient winning. The office is an 8 year term.

The General Assembly also has the power to remove justices. And if members don’t feel like waiting for the current 3rd Circuit justices’ terms to expire — Johnny Morrison, up again in 2023; James Hawks, up again in 2022; Kenneth Melvin, up again in 2018; and William Moore, Jr., up again in 2023 — they can simply take matters into their own hands.

In the very least, members might consider assembling a hearing to see why the justices and the Clerk of the Court are so intent on pissing off the local sheriff. If they don’t like his answer, they can just find a new Chief Justice.

Or, Morrison could simply hang the flag. Just saying.

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